Arunima Datta, "Waiting on Empire: A History of Indian Travelling Ayahs in Britain" (Oxford UP, 2023)


The expansion of the British Empire facilitated movement across the globe for both the colonizers and the colonized. Waiting on Empire: A History of Indian Travelling Ayahs in Britain (OUP, 2023) focuses on a largely forgotten group in this story of movement and migration: South Asian travelling ayahs (servants and nannies), who travelled between India and Britain and often found themselves destitute in Britain as they struggled to find their way home to South Asia. Delving into the stories of individual ayahs from a wide range of sources, Arunima Datta illuminates their brave struggle to assert their rights, showing how ayahs negotiated their precarious employment conditions, capitalized on social sympathy amongst some sections of the British population, and confronted or collaborated with various British institutions and individuals to demand justice and humane treatment. In doing so, Datta re-imagines the experience of waiting. Waiting is a recurrent human experience, yet it is often marginalized. It takes a particular form within complex bureaucratized societies in which the marginalized inevitably wait upon those with power over them. Those who wait are often discounted as passive, inactive victims. This book shows that, in spite of their precarious position, the travelling ayahs of the British empire were far from this stereotype.

The Museum of the Home in London will be hosting Arunima Datta for a public book talk and interactive tour on Waiting on Empire on October 28, 2023.

Arunima Datta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of North Texas. She is a historian of the British Empire and Asian (South and Southeast Asian) history. Her research and teaching explore the everyday experiences of labor migrants within the context of the British Empire. She has previously been on New Books Network to discuss her first book, the award-winning Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya (2021). She serves as an associate editor of Gender & History, Britain and the World, and as the Associate Review Editor of the American Historical Review.

Zoya Sameen is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. She is a historian of gender, law, and empire in modern South Asia and her current book project examines how Indian and European women responded defiantly to the policing of prostitution from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century in colonial India.

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